The Ellis School marches on despite abrupt resignation of Randie Benedict

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A. Randol "Randie" Benedict's sudden resignation earlier this month as the head of The Ellis School, the city's only independent private school for girls, has raised questions and eyebrows in the Ellis community and the wider private school network in the Pittsburgh area.

Ellis trustees and Ms. Benedict remain silent on the reasons for her departure just four weeks into the new school year. But tax documents filed by the school show that Ms. Benedict, who earned $237,324 in 2011, inherited a school that was struggling with finances and enrollment declines.

The economic meltdown of 2008-09 left the school's $12 million annual budget with a $5 million deficit that year, along with a $3.7 million loss in investment income and an endowment drop from $27.5 million to $22.9 million, according to federal 990 IRS tax forms filed by Ellis.

The recession also affected parents' ability to pay Ellis tuition, which ranges from $9,000 to $26,000 depending on grade level, and that meant Ellis had to offer more financial aid to students at a time when its resources were dwindling. From 2009 to 2011 it increased the amount of financial aid to students from $1.49 million to slightly more than $2 million. Currently, about 35 percent of students receive financial aid.

That followed a national trend among private schools, said Myra McGovern, spokeswoman for the National Association of Independent Schools.

"Endowments crashed in 2008-09, and then in 2009-10 there was a huge spike in financial aid that the schools had to offer to accommodate the number of people whose finances took a hit," Ms. McGovern said. She said the financial hits have been tougher on single-gender schools because they have only half of the student population from which to recruit.

Mary Grant, who served as Ellis head before Ms. Benedict took over in 2009, said she remembers how the economic crash affected the school and how Ms. Benedict took over at a challenging time.

"The recession had a big impact on our donors. Our donors were quite cautious for a while and that was understandable," said Ms. Grant, who is now interim head of Miss Hall's School in Pittsfield, Mass.

By 2011, the Ellis budget deficit had been reduced to $775,000 in a $12.4 million budget and endowment upped to nearly $25 million. Federal IRS Form 990s are not publicly available for 2012 and 2103.

Ellis trustee Timothy Parks declined to say whether the current Ellis budget is balanced.

But he said the endowment now stands at between $26 million and $27 million, which he said makes Ellis, per capita, one of the most well-endowed local private schools.

It also is among its most well-known and respected. Ellis counts among its graduates Pittsburgh philanthropist Elsie Hillman and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Dillard.

Current enrollment at the 97-year-old school is 410. That's down from 475 in 2009, a decrease of about 13.5 percent.

That decrease is significantly greater than the average 2.9 percent enrollment decline from 2008-09 to 2012-13 among private schools in the Pittsburgh region reported by the National Association of Independent Schools.

Nationally, according to the NAIS, enrollment in private schools has decreased about 1.2 percent from its height in 2008-09.

In the initial aftermath of Ms. Benedict's departure, trustees maintained a wall of silence, other than to allow school spokeswoman Kitty Julian to confirm the resignation and announce that Robin Newham, longtime director of the Ellis upper school, was appointed interim head of the school while the search for a new leader ensues.

This week, however, Mr. Parks broke that silence in an interview, stating there was no wrongdoing associated with Ms. Benedict's departure.

"We have nothing but the highest regard for Randie. She resigned and she's on to other things or will be on to other things," said Mr. Parks, who was board president for three of Ms. Benedict's four years at the helm.

He declined to release any further details, citing confidentiality in the personnel matter. "It's just a parting of the ways," he said.

He also pointed out that the financial problems experienced by Ellis during the recession of 2008-09 affected nearly all private independent schools.

However, 990 forms filed by other private schools in the area, including Shady Side Academy, Sewickley Academy, Winchester Thurston and St. Edmund's Academy, show that while they, too, saw large investment income drops in 2008-09, their budget deficits were not as large in proportion to their budget totals as the Ellis deficit of nearly 42 percent.

Private speculation about Ms. Benedict's resignation among those in the Ellis community has run the gamut, including questions over some controversial decisions made by Ms. Benedict, such as the toning down of the long-standing tradition of senior pranks in 2010, and whether they created rifts between her and parents and board members.

Managing constituencies at a private school can be a major challenge, said Ms. McGovern.

"In this day and age keeping parents satisfied and working together is topmost in the minds of most school leaders," she said.

At Ellis, there is also some question about whether the school's new strategic plan enacted this year -- which calls for more focus on balance between wellness, academics and sports -- was considered too watered down by Ms. Benedict.

The plan, created in part in reaction to a parents survey from 2012 that indicated students were feeling overloaded, has prompted the reduction in the number of classes per day from nine to eight and the spacing out on deadlines of major school projects and exams. Ms. Julian said the survey showed that "parents really do value rigor and they want us to manage it well for their daughters."

Mr. Parks said he believes the most important issue is that the operation of the school has not missed a beat with the transition. "This has not disrupted the operation of the school in any way. We are laser focused on the future," he said.

education - neigh_city

Mary Niederberger:; 412-263-1590. First Published September 27, 2013 4:00 AM


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